This year Liberia will conduct its third presidential and legislative election since the end of the civil conflict in 2003. The elections are scheduled for October 10.
However, the National Elections Commission (NEC) faces significant financial and operational challenges to maintain this electoral calendar and the events leading up to it: accreditation of election observers, voter registration, commencement of civic education among other responsibilities. And, the legacy of the civil war, unemployed youth, identity politics, and a ‘winner takes all’ political culture combine to create continuing vulnerabilities for electoral violence to occur again in 2017.
In 1996, a peace agreement was signed which ended the First Liberian Civil War. That war lasted from 1989 until 1997 and cost an estimated 600,000 lives. One mandate in the peace agreement was to conduct general elections in 1997. The President, House of Representatives, and Senate were elected. The voter turnout was 89 percent, and former warlord Charles Taylor and his New Patriotic Party (NPP) won the presidency with 75.3 percent of the vote. This election was overseen by the United Nations (UN) through its peacekeeping presence the UN Observer Mission in Liberia. While this election was relatively peaceful, it was widely believed that without a victory, Charles Taylor would have returned to war.
However, in 1999 two rebel groups emerged – Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy, in the north, backed by the neighbouring state of Guinea; and a second group emerged in the south – the movement for Democracy in Liberia. The Second Liberia Civil War lasted until 2003, when the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.
The next election conducted in 2005 was administered under Liberian authority and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as Liberia’s first female president. The opposition claimed that there was vote rigging, but international observers generally gave passing marks to this election, which was also relatively peaceful.
However, the vulnerabilities remaining from over a decade of civil wars produced political fissures between the ruling and opposition parties which erupted into violence during the 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections.
The violence preceded the conduct of the second round of voting in the presidential elections. Johnson had achieved a plurality over Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), but did not pass the 50 percent plus one threshold required for victory.
However, the CDC claimed election fraud and urged their supporters to boycott the second round. They stated that the NEC had not investigated and concluded adjudication on all the complaints which they received in the first round – over 50 were filed, with 16 were still being investigated and 38 had been concluded. The NEC said that it was constitutionally bound to follow the statutory election calendar.
When the NEC announced that the second round would proceed on schedule because the constitution required it, CDC supporters gathered outside their headquarters in what was initially described as a peaceful protest. However, because they did not have a permit, this protest was met with force from the Liberian National Police (LNP) and the officers from UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). The police reportedly used tear and live ammunition against stone-throwing protesters. Up to six people were reported killed by police fire and several others wounded.
While opposed by the government of the United States and others in the international community, the CDC boycott was implemented. Of 4,500 polling stations, many opened late on election day, and some did not open at all for fear of violence
The legacy of violence among political rivals re-emerged in by-elections for 15 Senate seats in 2014. Violent clashes between supporters of George Weah (CDC) and Robert Alvin Sirleaf (Unity Party) occurred in many of these Senate contests. Sirleaf is the son of the incumbent president. The NEC did not sanction either side for these incidents.
Concerns over the potential for this legacy of political rival violence to re-emerge in 2017 have already been expressed. The Special Representative of the President of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Liberia, Ambassador Babatunde Ajisomo, issued a statement urging Liberians to safeguard elections by strengthening the justice system and prosecuting election offenders.
As electoral disputes were the triggers to violence before, the Special Representative urged the creation of an Elections Offences Commission of Tribunal with prosecutorial powers, which the NEC does not possess. He stated that the media would play an important role in peaceful elections through objective reporting. He also pointed out that corruption was a trigger for electoral violence and that the internal democracy of political parties needed to be strengthened.
ECOWAS organized a Consultative Forum on Election Security involving Liberia security stakeholders. In examining the capacities of LNP, ECOWAS has recommended that training for security forces should include risk analysis and mapping potential conflict areas.